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MONEY

Why German bank customers could soon pay less for their account

A major German bank is set to scrap fees on large balances - and a number of others look set to follow. Here's why people in Germany may be paying less for their savings or current account in the near future.

Woman with wallet
A woman looks in her wallet while grocery shopping. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez

What’s going on? 

Interest rates have been at rock-bottom levels for years, making it much harder for people to get returns on their savings.

In recent years, many banks have even been levying what’s known as negative interest rates on customers. If interest normally incentivises people to save by helping them to grow their money, negative interest basically does the opposite.

If you have a certain amount of money in the bank, your bank will charge you negative interest via a deposit holding fee, which will usually be a certain percentage of your balance.

With N26, for example, balances of over €50,000 are subject to a 0.5 percent fee each year. For a balance of exactly €50,000, that equates to €250 in bank charges just for keeping your money there. 

Some banks even charge a deposit holding fee for balances as low as €5,000 or €10,000 in a current account. 

On Tuesday, ING Deutschland became the first bank to announce that it would be scrapping negative interest rates for the vast majority of its customers.

From July 1st, new customers of ING will be able to deposit up to €500,000 in their account without being charged for it, while existing customers will automatically have the fee-free amount raised to €500,000 from the current €50,000. 

Now, it seems a number of other German banks are planning similar moves. 

Why is ING Deutschland ending the holding fee?

Not entirely out of the goodness of its own heart – though that doesn’t stop it being good news for customers.

The European Central Bank (ECB) is set to make a decision on interest rates in the bloc this July, and most people expect that the bank is poised to increase interest rates from minus 0.5 percent to zero. 

Since banks have basically been passing on the ECB’s fees to their own customers, a hike in the ECB’s interest rate would spell the end of most negative interest-rate accounts in any case. But ING Deutschland said it wanted to pass on the positive interest rate trend to its customers even earlier.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to save money on your taxes in Germany

“With the increase in the fee-free allowance for credit balances on the current and extra accounts, the deposit fee is no longer applicable for 99.9 percent of our customers,” said Nick Jue, chief executive officer of ING in Germany. “We were one of the last banks to introduce a deposit holding fee and one of the first to virtually abolish it.”

He added that the bank had already kept its promise to abolish the holding fee for almost all customers before the European Central Bank made its decision.

Does this have anything to do with that court decision on bank charges?

That’s definitely a factor. According to a decision in Germany’s Federal Supreme Court last year, credit institutions have to obtain the consent of their customers when making changes to their fees and conditions.

That means that financial institutions have to ask for consent to current fees retrospectively if they don’t want hoards of people trying to claim their money back.

If a customer doesn’t consent to the fees, the bank will usually close that customer’s account.

Man signs a contract

A man in a suit fills in an official form. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Pixabay | hnw-Gruppe

According to ING Deutschland, the scrapping of negative interest rates on balances up to €500,000 may help to sway those customers who have not yet agreed to the latest terms and conditions – including the deposit holding fee.

Anyone who agrees to the Ts&Cs will automatically be given the higher allowance as of July 1st.

“ING Deutschland expects that the increase in the allowances will convince in particular those customers who have not yet agreed to the General Terms and Conditions including the holding fee, and that the bank will thus terminate fewer customers than last planned,” ING said in a press release. 

READ ALSO:

What other banks are planning to do this?

According to reports in Bild and Bialo, the other banks planning on ending negative interest rates (or raising the threshold for fee-free balances like ING Deutschland has done) include:

  • Deutsche Bank
  • Commerzbank
  • Deutsche Apotheker- und Ärztebank (Apobank)
  • Dortmunder Volksbank
  • Hamburger Sparkasse (Haspa
  • Frankfurter Sparkasse
  • Frankfurter Volksbank
  • Mittelbrandenburgische Sparkasse
  • Nassauische Sparkasse (Naspa)
  • Ostsächsische Sparkasse Dresden
  • Sparda-Bank München
  • Sparda-Bank Südwest
  • Sparda-Bank West
  • Sparkasse Hannover
  • Sparkasse Pforzheim Calw
  • Volksbank Stuttgart

What does this mean for my savings?

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that, from July, you’ll no longer have to pay exorbitant charges just to store your money in a safe place – and you won’t be penalised for saving more. The bad news, on the other hand, is that low interest rates aren’t going away anytime soon.

So while you won’t be losing money hand over fist, you won’t be earning much of a return on your savings either.

Banks in Frankfurt

Skyscrapers in the financial district of Frankfurt am Main. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez

“If the interest rate environment continues to develop positively, we will also let our customers participate in this development,” said ING Deutschland’s Nick Jue. “However, the low-interest phase will continue for the time being and broadly diversified investments will remain important.”

Getting a securities account where your money is invested is one way to try and grow your savings, as is investing in property.

Of course, people with mortgages and other loans benefit from the low interest rates – which could be why the German property market is currently booming. 

READ ALSO: Five ways Germany’s soaring inflation could affect your life

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MONEY

Why large families are set to pay less for German care insurance

Germany's highest court has issued a landmark ruling stating that families with lots of children should ultimately pay less for their social security. Here's what you need to know.

Why large families are set to pay less for German care insurance

What’s going on? 

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that parents with more than one child should pay a reduced rate of care insurance compared to people with fewer children – or those with none at all.

The case had been brought by 376 families in a campaign called Elternklage (Parents’ Complaint), who were supported by the Family Federation of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Freiburg. The families had argued that the amount of health insurance, pension insurance and care insurance they pay should be directly linked to the number of children they have.

Since raising a family costs time and money, this contribution to society should be taken into account when setting insurance rates and people with more children should pay lower contributions, the parents argued. 

What does the current law say? 

At present, Pflegeversicherung (care insurance) – a type of social security designed to fund care in old age – is already paid at different rates by parents and non-parents. Since the beginning of 2022, people without children pay 3.4 percent of their income towards social care, while parents pay 3.05 percent of their income.

The decision to have two different rates dates back to an earlier court ruling from 2001. At the time, the judges decided that charging people with children and those without the same amount of care insurance went against the Basic Law. This is because, in the view of the judge, parents pay a “generative contribution to the functioning of a pay-as-you-go social security system”, since their children pay back into the pot later in the life. The two-tiered system for people with and without children was adopted shortly afterwards.

At the same time, however, the judges ruled against a reduction in pension or health insurance contributions for parents. They said it was legitimate for the state to subsidise parents in other ways, such as through free education or topping up the pensions of people who had raised a family. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who pays the most German tax and who benefits the most?

So if parents already pay less, what’s the problem?

According to the plaintiffs, the 2001 ruling made a false equivalence between small and large families and didn’t fully take into account the loss of income, time and cost associated with raising kids. 

The lawyers argued that the plaintiffs suffered a double loss of earnings when raising their children and looking after the older generation, and pointed to the fact that women’s pensions are often much lower than men due to time spent bringing up children.

The Catholic Family Federation also suggested that families didn’t really receive free healthcare for their children. That’s because the parents’ contributions are only assessed on their overall earnings, which means that the number of children they have and the costs associated with that aren’t taken into account.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s new parental benefits reforms

The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uli Deck

And what were the counterarguments? 

Arguing against the constitutional complaint, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry said the costs associated with bringing up a child should be shouldered by society as a whole rather than any given insurance fund.

The National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Funds (GKV) pointed out that children may not necessarily grow up and pay into the same insurance pot that their parents’ did, making it hard to calculate parents’ contributions based on their children’s future ones. Some children may grow up and move abroad, which would mean they would pay into a different pension or health insurance fund entirely, they pointed out. 

The GKV advocated for reimbursing parents through child benefits rather than through reductions in insurance contributions. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about the complicated world of German insurance

Did the judges agree with the plaintiffs? 

Partly – but only on the care insurance issue. According to the judges, the 2001 ruling didn’t go far enough in taking into account the number of children in a family. The more children a family has, the greater the effort and the associated costs for parents, they wrote in a statement announcing the ruling.

“This disadvantage occurs even from the second child,” the statement reads. “Charging the same contribution rate to parents regardless of the number of children they have is not constitutionally justified.” 

School pupils in a German classroom

School children sit in a classroom in Neckartailfingen, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

On health insurance and pensions, however, they disagreed with the plaintiffs. 

They said that time taken out by parents to look after children was already factored into the statutory pensions system and pointed to the fact that people benefit from free healthcare as a teenager and child as part of their parents’ health insurance plans. 

READ ALSO: Ehegattensplitting: How did Germany’s marriage tax law become so controversial?

What happens now? 

The court has given the government until July 31st 2023 to introduce a tapered system with larger discounts for larger families.

Speaking to RND on Wednesday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) said his ministry would implement the changes to the law within the agreed timeframe. He said officials would look closely at the reasoning for the ruling and see how it could be best applied to a new tariff system.

However, Lauterbach emphasised that the social care system still needed to be properly financed. “We also want to tackle that,” he said. 

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